Lessons My Older Pets Teach Me

Step Out of Your Box

Has the phrase “you have to step out of your box,” ever sent your cortisol levels skyrocketing into fight or flight mode?  “Expanding your box” sounds more palatable, less intimidating.  Dorie Clark talks about (in her book, Reinventing Yourself) the need to constantly re-evaluate who you are, what you’re doing and how it’s working for you.

The constantly changing world demands resilience in order to keep things flowing. Balance is the prerequisite since all dimensions of life (emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, intellectual, educational, social, and occupational) are interconnected.  Weakness and lack of homeostasis in any dimension creates stress, resulting in the seesaw effect as we strive for equilibrium.  It’s important to identify when the seesaw begins to tip and make corrections before experiencing consequences such as excessive tiredness, irritability, excessive eating, reduced productivity, illness, job dissatisfaction, etc.

Reinventing yourself begins by reviewing your strengths and areas of potential growth.  You can then develop a plan to enhance strengths and shore up your potential growths-expand your box- and open up more exciting opportunities.  Although uncomfortable at first, by taking small steps to build confidence and having a mentor for support, you can override your fear. By becoming aware of obstacles and developing a plan to remove them (or make them less obtrusive), they soon became past hurdles that you’ve successfully conquered.  Growth doesn’t occur by staying in your comfort zone.  Strength is derived from overcoming challenges.  What a self-esteem boost!

It’s sometimes difficult to recognize change, which may lead to relapse into old, familiar patterns of behaviors. As you gain confidence in new abilities (it takes time and repetition to develop and reinforce new habits), this becomes easier.  Act confident and others will begin to reinforce your positive changes. Eventually, new patterns will be formed.  Align yourself with supports who will acknowledge your strengths. They will validate your new path and the momentum will lead to other areas of growth.  How exciting!

Who you are today doesn’t need to be who you are tomorrow!


Favorite Quotes

Dante Alighieri: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”

Dr. Wayne Anderson: “Optimal health is a journey taken one step, one habit and one day at a time.”

Buddhist Sutra: “Unceasing change turns the wheel of life and so reality is shown in all its many forms. Dwell peacefully as change itself liberates all suffering sentient beings and brings them great joy. Dwell peacefully with al of these patterns of change, and to have faith that the unceasing turning of the wheel is spinning us all toward greater wisdom and joy.

Jimmy Carter: “The awareness that health is dependent upon habits that we control makes us the first generation in history that to a large extent determined by its own destiny.”

Deepak Chopra: “We limit ourselves by defining ourselves and giving labels that limits ourselves.”

Stephen Covey: “Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light the fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly.”

Dalai Lama: “The tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”

Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”

Victor Frankl: “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Robert Fuller: “Good habits once established, are just as hard to break as bad habits.”

Jesus: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

Jung: “What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.”

Kurdish saying: “The root of all health is in the brain. The trunk of it is in the emotion. The branches and leaves are the body. The flower of health blooms when all parts work together.”

Stephen Levine: “The beginning of the path of healing is the end of life unlived.”

Mizuta Mosalinda (17th century Japanese poet): “Barns burnt down, now I can see the moon.”

Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.”

Rumi: “Let yourself be silently drawn, by the stronger pull of what you really love.”

Rumi: “Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open.”

Jim Ryun: “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Thoreau: “Be resolutely and faithfully what you are, not who you think you should be.”

Chinese Sage Seng Ts’An: “Don’t keep searching for the truth; just let go of your opinions, loosen grip of judgments-give truth chance to reveal itself.”

Mark Twain: “The trouble with the worlds is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

Unknown: “Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then, he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. He lives as if he is never going to die and then dies having never really lived.”

Lee Ann Womack: “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”


Journey of a Rescue Dog: Baptism By Fire

My phone rang one early morning; the caller was very anxious: “He may have to go back!” Elizabeth was tired, frustrated and at her wits’ end. “I’ve never given a pet back before, but I don’t know what else to do!” Following Austin’s adoption, she had taken the week off to bond, establish a routine and spend time with her new baby. She had created the perfect beginning: new toys, leash, puppy collar, kennel for his safety while she was gone, safe dog bones, etc. – all of the new-puppy essentials. Since I knew this 5-month-old pup was very active and not the perfect candidate for apartment living, I introduced Elizabeth to a professional obedience trainer, so they could get off on the right foot/paw. But, plenty of activities occurred prior to that appointment with the trainer.

Austin’s introduction to his new home involved his racing from room to room, barking and ripping his new toys into shreds. Elizabeth tried to pry those very expensive, “indestructible” toys from his grasp, to no avail. With no “Let go” command in his repertoire, he clung to each broken piece with the jaws of life. Teaching him to release would be a priority for a future obedience lesson.

Walking on a leash was also a challenge. Every rabbit and squirrel beckoned a chase by taunting him with its tail. With Austin gagging and pulling, Elizabeth fought to control this headstrong, energized 28-lb. dog. Leash-walking was also bumped to the top of the obedience training list. Then there was his incessant barking in the apartment, which could easily result in eviction. It was hard to choose which behavior to address first without overwhelming owner or pup.

“I wonder what kind of dog he is?” Elizabeth mused. Beagle? Jack Russell? Foxhound? American bulldog? He possessed a strong prey drive and jaws of steel, and bayed like a hound. His black, tan and white markings resembled those of a beagle, and his ability to jump 5 feet from a standing position screamed Jack Russell terrier. This dog has to have a job, and quickly! To reduce Austin’s often-frenzied behavior, Elizabeth began a walking routine, accompanied by a lot of frustration training him to walk on a leash. The walks started at 3 miles in the morning, 2½ miles in the late afternoon and 2 to 3 miles before bedtime! Apartment-style ball throwing and broken-toy mouth retrieval came in between. “What am I going to do when I return to work?” asked Elizabeth. Austin barked loudly at noises heard from inside the apartment building, jumped on the windowsill to bark at neighbors, and barked when put in his kennel. Elizabeth was feeling like a prisoner in her own home. The frustrations were quickly replacing the joys of new-puppy ownership. She had seven days to control this new puppy or return him to his former foster mom. Her head said to return him, but her heart couldn’t let him go. She enjoyed challenges and was already becoming very attached to this dog.   Austin playing with toy

The next initiation that’s imperative when acquiring a new pet is the first visit to the veterinarian. Establishing a positive working relationship is important, since the doctor will help guide care and treatment of this important member of your family. Austin made his presence known in the vet’s office by barking at the other dogs, pulling on the leash to the point of making a loud gagging sound, then screaming while throwing his body into gyrations before the vet could even examine him. She was patient and was finally able to finish the examination, but everyone in the room was exhausted from the struggle. He left with a clean bill of health. Now he could officially be registered for obedience class.

Due to timing and availability, the appointment for his one-hour private obedience lesson came just a few hours after his veterinarian appointment. We arrived for the lesson, but Austin was not himself. Tired from the struggle at the vet’s office and possibly the vaccine boosters given, he did not demonstrate any of the unruly behaviors that Elizabeth needed to have addressed. In hindsight, this worked out for the best. Having a calm dog allowed the obedience instructor to work with Elizabeth on basic skills and how to apply them while developing a new routine. She left the lesson with a plan and felt optimistic that everything would work out.

I received a text, then a call when I didn’t answer the text immediately. A panicked voice said, “I can’t take it anymore!” Austin quickly bounced back from the aftereffects of the booster shots and became a terror in the apartment. He barked constantly, jumped onto the couch and the windowsills, and demolished every toy that had “for extreme chewers” written on the packaging. This voracious chewer was eating himself through the apartment. In response, Elizabeth and Austin continued walking and walking and walking. They were up to 6 miles a day, which barely took the edge off his insatiable appetite for activity and destruction. I began asking friends and dog experts for advice and helped Elizabeth whittle down her list of options. She still had a few days left in her agreement, so he could be returned to his former foster mother if this became even more unbearable.

One thing she noticed is Austin rubbed his skin everywhere, including in the grass. Maybe his behavior was due to itchy skin? He had red bumps on his belly, which led to another veterinarian visit. Elizabeth changed Austin’s diet and gave him medications, but those took awhile to work. There were so many pieces to this puzzle, and nothing was a quick fix.

That first week in the life of Elizabeth and Austin was jam-packed with learning. Looking back through the texts and phone calls I received while trying to help my friend navigate through these obstacles was daunting. We watched Cesar Millan shows, and although not all techniques should be used in all situations, the shows taught Elizabeth the importance of being a pack leader, being consistent and being tenacious – if she could stick with it, she may see results.

Here are some of the training techniques used that first week:
• Walking – Cesar Millan-style – with Austin by her side wearing a training collar, and walking in the opposite direction when he tugged at the leash.
• Teaching him to “Wait” at all street corners – since he tried to pull her into traffic.
• Extending the walked distance – once Austin was able to walk on a leash without lunging for every squirrel that taunted him.
• Using a doggy backpack – laden with a water bottle on each side to wear him out faster during walks. The obstacles: He didn’t want to walk with it on, and then he didn’t know how to navigate through the door with extra padding on his body.  Austin with backpack
• Teaching basic obedience skills – like “Sit,” “Down,” “Kennel” and “Quiet.”
• Using a water squirt bottle for dire emergencies – when he was zooming around the apartment, while biting everything he passed.
• Toenail trimming – the attempt at which was a full-contact sport! At first, Elizabeth held him in her lap on my ottoman, while I approached with the Dremel. Austin shot his body backwards, which caused Elizabeth to fall off the ottoman, almost hitting her head on my tile floor. We switched, and I held Austin in a stronghold, while Elizabeth used the grinder. I had scratches and bruises on my arms and legs from the event, and no nail was ever touched. This would be a challenge for another day.

Everything became a routine. He wasn’t given any treat, food or toy without being asked to perform an obedience behavior. Elizabeth slowly became the pack leader, and by anticipating any bad behaviors Austin may have, she was able to head them off, often avoiding potential disasters.

Now, why was Elizabeth continuing to give Austin a second, third, fourth chance? Amid the challenges, there were many easy-to-forget positives. Austin is adorable, funny and mischievous in a Dennis the Menace kind of way. He makes her smile, and believe it or not, he enjoys snuggle time. Yes, there are times when, like an overactive toddler, he collapses after moments of high energy, and the innocence he portrays as he sleeps erases the moments when she feels like pulling her hair out. Austin is quite the snuggler and snorer, as well. He has a way of using his eyes to draw you in, and his antics can be quite hysterical.

Elizabeth has become attached to both Austin and the challenge. She can see small progress, which is often followed by regression, but she is learning how to teach Austin to learn. She is molding his behavior into something she can live with. Her biggest regret is the money spent on too many toys, which were quickly destroyed. They overstimulated, sending Austin into a frenzy.

The next step in the training process is formal obedience class. There are many fears, mainly not knowing how he’ll react around other dogs. Will he become over-the-top crazy when toys are used? Elizabeth’s biggest fear: Will they pass the class, or be told to take Novice again? We talked about how there is no shame in repeating that class, since sometimes those basic skills take time to learn. That will be a story for another day.

The biggest news is that I got a call from Elizabeth on the seventh day of having Austin, to say she could not give him back. It was a very long week, but she saw results. Austin had already been in four foster homes before she brought him to her own, so she knew it would take more time for him to adjust. He had experienced a lot in his five months of life, and knowing he was already in the “teenage” stage gave her hope. She made the long-term commitment of a life together, and Austin finally got his forever home. But, there is so much more … Stay tuned for the saga of this rescue dog, as both Elizabeth and Austin face more life challenges together, which in turn, changes both of their lives.

Austin and Elizabeth on Couch


Wellness Workshop: Coping Strategies to Increase Well-Being

Wellness Workshop: Coping Strategies to Increase Well-Being


The holidays are quickly approaching, which may increase stress.

This is part 1 of a series of presentations that will help you deal with life challenges so you can reduce stress, develop healthy coping skills and enjoy whatever comes your way.


This presentation will cover the following:

  • What is stress and how does it affect our bodies?
  • How can we handle stress using various techniques (deep breathing, mindfulness)
  • How do we change unhealthy behaviors?
  • How physical activity and stretching can help reduce stress.
  • How to develop a survival plan for the holiday season.


Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D (Wellness Alley, LLC) is a licensed clinical social worker, certified co-occurring therapist and certified health and wellness coach who has worked in the field of mental health and substance abuse for over 22 years. She helps staff and clients develop individualized treatment plans and educates about the importance of healthy lifestyles.

Elizabeth Brady-Clymer, RN has been a nurse for 15 years, working on the in-patient medical/surgical and psychiatric units and in a community mental health center.  She uses wellness skills in both her personal and professional life and helps clients and staff achieve their wellness goals.

Date:  Sunday, November 8th

Time:  2:00-4:00

Location:  Breath of Life Health and Wellness Center

7700 Clayton Rd, Suite 319

Richmond Heights, MO 63117

Cost $20

Please RSVP to:

Allison White

Wellness Alley, LLC



Please visit us at www.wellnessalley.com for information about our services.

Journey of a Rescue Dog

“What kind of dog should I get? Maltese? Chihuahua? a small one that will snuggle with me?” my friend had been asking almost continuously lately. I knew the time was nearing when she’d find the “perfect” fur kid because her persistence with wanting a dog had been intensifying. As we walked around another adoption event with all the sad eyes peering through the cages, all seeming to be pleading “Please take me home with you,” I could hardly stand it anymore. If I had room for them at home, they’d all be mine.

My friend coaxed me to accompany her to yet another event on another weekend, where we passed several cages of very small dogs. And, then, there he was – fixed stare, adorable face, floppy ears, one white with speckles on it. His gaze followed us as we petted the smaller pups. My friend turned to the rescue group staff and said, “I’d like to play with him,” as she pointed to that floppy-eared, 6- month-old, 28-lb. beagle-terrier mix. My mouth flew open in disbelief since this wasn’t what I envisioned for a suitable apartment companion.

We took him for a walk, played with him in the enclosed area, then handed his leash back to the foster mother with whom he had been living. “I’ll think about it,” my friend said. But as other potential adopters looked at that pup in the cage, my friend knew she didn’t want him going to live with anyone else.

Fast forward … The pup soon had a new home in an apartment with my friend, the new-doggy mom, who had fallen instantly in love with him. His name was Austin, which fit him perfectly. Yes, there would be behavior issues to resolve, but this would happen one step at a time. I said I’d help with training and problem-solving, which, I have to admit, made me run to some professional dog trainers for assistance.

The first task was to create structure and to set boundaries for what was acceptable behavior in an apartment setting. Then, establish a routine, get Austin checked by the veterinarian, find a kennel for safety when unattended, then sign up for obedience training. She focused on not projecting upon him her trepidations about his past life and what may have happened to him as a rescue dog. The lesson learned was that humans may live and think in the past, but dogs live in the moment. They may react from how they were treated in the past, but our job is to help them work through those obstacles without giving in to the “poor baby” mentality. It’s important to reinforce the behavior we want to continue. Coddling an undesirable behavior, such as fear, will only intensify it.

My friend has done all the right things and has a thirst for knowledge that stems from her love and immediate bonding with Austin. Trying times are ahead, especially with Austin’s need for constant attention and exercise, but so far, my friend has been able to offset the negatives with the realization that they have come a long way together in a very short time.

I will continue reporting on this journey, which is just beginning for Austin and his new mom.


Allison White
Wellness Alley, LLC



The Value of Puppy Temperament Testing

Here is a video done after temperament testing a litter of 7 week old Golden Retriever puppies. The cicadas provided a very loud symphony in the background.

Wellness Video: Mindfulness

How we can use our pets as an example of how to be mindful:

Reevaluating Our Pet’s Goals

Have you ever wanted a goal so badly that you’re driven out of  your comfort zone to achieve it? Have you almost reached that goal only to have the bottom drop out, forcing you to rapidly change course? It is hard to stop midstream to reevaluate and change your path, especially if you have a lot of emotion and time invested in achieving whatever needed to reach your goal.

I’ve raised puppies with a specific goal in mind, whether it’s that they become therapy dogs, earn advanced obedience or agility titles or become conformation champions. Once my dogs enter my household, they rarely leave, so it’s difficult when my high hopes that they’ll fulfill certain goals don’t work out. I’ve had dogs who had to retire from performance events because of sports-related injuries, had to end conformation careers because of genetic conditions that shouldn’t be passed to offspring, and had to retire from obedience competition because they didn’t enjoy it. One dog was trained to advanced obedience titles when he shut down in the competition ring. Could I have spent time working through his fears? Maybe. When I released my expectation and found an activity he enjoyed, his true nature and joy of life emerged. He never did achieve advanced obedience titles, but he loved agility and quickly attained advanced agility awards.

I’ve enjoyed doing therapy dog work but faced some of the same issues. What do you do when you want a goal more than your dog does? It takes some soul-searching, and it can be a personal loss to overcome. I’ve seen trained therapy dogs who didn’t seem to have fun anymore. Maybe they visited too often or didn’t take a break, which is essential for their emotional well-being. Therapy work is both emotionally and physically draining for pets. That one hour visiting a hospital or nursing home, where people’s needs and emotional situations are displaced onto the therapy dogs, can be draining. My own therapy dog will sleep all the way home after a visit. They may not be aware cognitively of what people are saying to them, but they feel the emotional intensity of the various situations. Therapy and service dogs need regular vacations or time-outs to play and just be dogs. They benefit from exercise to release pent-up energy, so they can return to work refreshed.

How will you know when it’s time to retire your dog from his chosen profession or performance event/career? Here are some of the more common indicators that maybe it’s time to find another activity for your dog:

  • The enthusiasm to run out the door with you for a visit is gone or starts to dwindle.
  • Your goal or desire for success or achievement is higher than the dog’s ability to achieve it.
  • The dog is either suffering from an injury or chronic condition, which may postpone competing in dog shows or events. Returning to shows early may be tempting, but rehab is slow, and the risk of reinjury may end a performance career if the dog is not completely healed.
  • Look into your dog’s eyes during training and evaluate whether you’re still working as a team, or has something changed? Who wants this more, you or your dog?

This topic evokes a lot of emotion in me since I’ve experienced many scenarios leading to potentially career-ending decisions. I didn’t make all the right decisions all the time, but I learned from them, which changed my outlook over time. There were many sleepless nights trying to decide whether I made the right decision. I found that if I looked into my dog’s eyes and pushed away my ego and my need to earn a ribbon or award, I came to the often painful truth, the right decision, and I was able to sleep soundly again, knowing my dog’s happiness was placed higher than my own needs or desires.

What are the consequences of these decisions?

  • My dog is less stressed and has a higher quality of life.
  • I may be removed from friends with whom I used to share experiences and travel to shows.
  • My dog and I will have to focus on different goals, while saying goodbye to sometimes years of training.
  • I may lose my identity and have to change my preestablished course. For example, someone once said, “Allison, you usually have an obedience, conformation and agility title on your dogs by now,” after I took a break and changed my normal path. It wasn’t easy to accept, and I felt like a failure.

I have utmost respect for people in the dog community who value the human-animal bond and who make their pets a part of their lifestyles. This increases quality of life for everyone, and at its best moments, life doesn’t get any better. But things can change, even subtly, and it’s important to look for the signs that goals may need to be reevaluated. Circumstances change, and we may need to choose a different path. What doesn’t need to change is our relationships with our pets, who are important members of the family and who just want to please us no matter what we do together. After all, it’s the connection we have with our pets that we remember far after the memories of the ribbons or titles fade.

Allison White

Lessons Our Pets Teach Us

This week I faced the fear that many pet lovers experience…the realization that my beloved pet was getting older. I found myself watching every move to “catch” any indication of declining health. My 14-year old dog suddenly became ill and it wasn’t resolving quickly. He had moments of energy followed by sluggishness when I wondered whether a trip to the veterinarian was needed. In the past, many hours have been spent in emergency rooms only to be told everything was fine. Should I risk waiting this time? No, so away we went to the urgent care facility. Waiting for “the news” seemed to take hours. Diagnostics were completed then the veterinarian entered the room smiling as she announced everything appeared normal. I could have given her a hug! I had more time with him. My heart went out to everyone in the waiting room and I hoped they would also receive good news.

As I nursed my dog back to health, I reflected on the short time we have with our pets. Watching mine brought up many questions. Have I given him a good life…..no, an excellent life filled with love and joy? As he slept peacefully on his bed, he looked like he could not be happier. He has never had high expectations except to be fed, walked and to greet me when I come home. He gives unconditionally with little expectation in return. On his 14th birthday, I gave him an overly stuffed dog bed, which was placed at his favorite spot by my chair. He sniffed it, turned away, and jumped onto my chair instead. I moved the new bed on top of my chair so now he had a truly overly stuffed dog bed. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing. It’s what we do for our furry kids and it makes us happy. It’s the least I can do while sharing my life with a dog who loves me unconditionally, who sees me without makeup (and doesn’t run screaming), who smiles at me as I leave for the day and jumps up to greet me after a long day of work or gone for 5 minutes to take out the trash.

Sharing our lives with pets can be hard. We lose them far too quickly, grieve their loss, then somehow, realize that life isn’t the same without so get another. It is the cycle of life, part of love and sharing. The loss after they go is still worth the time they spent with us. It’s hard to explain their impact on us but we know how empty it feels when they’re gone. Dr. Temple Grandin stated in her book, “Animals Make Us Human” that they teach us life lessons. I have tried to adopt this realization in my daily life. Pets practice mindfulness skills by living in the here and now, which I am reminded of when my Golden Retriever stops to watch a butterfly. How many times have I missed these amazing gifts of nature? Our pets have a keen awareness of their surroundings, maybe because they depend on others to fulfill basic needs.

In Dr. Marty Becker’s book, “The Healing Power of Pets,” he talks of how our pets share life lessons if we would only open our eyes to learn from them. It took my dog’s illness to clarify both my fear of losing him and the joy he continues to bring every day. My pets teach me not to be judgmental, to be compassionate, joyful and appreciative of the love I receive and the love I give. They help us become children again – if only for a moment – letting us play, laugh, run and enjoy the silliness of the simplest experiences. Look at the videos shared on Facebook and YouTube. They brighten our days. My cell phone has my favorite dog photos to look at when I need a pick-me-up. Our pets remind us of what’s important in our lives…..the bonds, the special connections we share. It’s what truly makes us human.  It’s also what causes grief and despair when faced with their loss.

Pet lovers realize that loving also means someday saying goodbye to a beloved pet. As our pets age, the realization often brings fear of the inevitable loss. We are never ready for that moment, which means losing a friend, family member, confidante and someone who has loved you unconditionally without judgment. When this time comes, it’s important to reach out for support, whether it’s a friend, family member, counselor or support group.  Don’t struggle alone. Pet lovers may hear others make light of their loss, so it’s important to find empathetic people who will listen without judgment. Acknowledge your feelings and don’t deny the impact your pet’s loss is having on your life. Take care of yourself!  Make sure you get enough sleep, eat and take extra time just for yourself. Many people feel that they must “get over it” quickly without facing the true depth of the grieving process. Our situations are unique so there is no standard time in which to “get over” the loss. There are many pet lovers willing to provide support so reach out and ask for what you need.

The human-animal connection is powerful and the joy, love, companionship, fear, loss and the whole emotional connection adds another dimension to life that’s difficult to replicate. Our pets teach us lessons if we take time to listen. Pay attention to what they’re telling you in subtle ways as you share your life with a pet who loves you the way you are. As we honor their lives, we also honor their memories. When it comes time to say goodbye, you will have received the greatest gift …the deep love and affection of a faithful companion. Those memories will stay with you forever.

Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D

This article was published in MetroPet’s June 2015